Life Together: It's Just Not Fair!
by Louise Westfall
It’s expressed in the plaintive childhood cry, He got more than me. It’s not fair!
It’s the basis of many lawsuits: call the Strong Arm and get what’s coming to you!
…, and many more poignant cries into the universe after a tragedy or serious diagnosis. It’s not fair!
I’ve heard it in the rhetoric around immigration and the perspective that “they” are taking jobs away from “us.” We were here first. It’s not fair!
It’s mentioned in the health care debate and the resentment some feel about a system that requires all to have insurance in order to provide health care for others, especially elderly, children, and poor people. It’s not fair!
It’s the basis of this week’s Scripture text, a story Jesus told about workers in a vineyard who all received the same wage, though some worked 12 hours and some worked one hour. Jesus even likened this arrangement to the kingdom of heaven, as if it were a good thing. What’s going on here? It’s just not fair! A reading from Matthew, in the 20th chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church. [John reads Matthew 20:1-16]
I don’t know about you, but this parable seems to hover perilously close to socialism. Everyone receives a salary no matter how hard they work. But that can’t be right! Jesus told this story as a way of describing the kingdom of heaven, so maybe we should limit its application to the spiritual realm. We’re all going to heaven in the end. I remember the reaction of a third grade Sunday School class to this proposition. One of the young scholars piped up, “Well, if everyone gets in to heaven, I know my dad won’t want to go there!”
Jesus first told this parable to “insiders,” to his disciples and others who were attracted to his message and ministry. They were quick to remind him of their virtue: Look, Jesus, we’ve left everything to follow you. What good will that do us? I picture Jesus looking lovingly at Peter and the others as he told this story in which the first are last, and the last, first. In God’s Kingdom, the usual order of things is reversed. Any sense of entitlement based on human standards of good behavior or righteous living is wiped out. BUT … everybody got a day’s wage. Everybody benefited from the owner’s generosity. It was all good. It was all grace. No, it’s not fair. But it is “just” in the amazing providence of God, whose justice is overflowing in mercy, and a persistent kind of love desiring that not a single person get lost or go hungry. It’s just … not fair.
It may only make sense to us in times of crisis. The way the whole nation responds after a natural disaster; the photos and stories emerging after hurricanes Harvey and Irma of daring rescues led by immigrants piloting rowboats. No one asked to see their green card. Restaurants and cafes serving meals and delivering food without charging a cent. African American and White citizens collaborating to open shelters, channel resources, and bring relief to any who needed it. Widespread destruction levels the playing field and says we’re all in this together. We can help one another.
What brings out the best in humanity some of the time, is God’s way of being all the time. This is a parable about God’s grace, that unconditional love and mercy God demonstrates to undeserving people.
And there’s the rub: we don’t see ourselves among the undeserving! We’ve worked hard. We’ve made sacrifices. We are responsible and save and do right.
And friends, it is this sense of entitlement, a conscious or perhaps unconscious perspective that we deserve God’s favor that prevents us from experiencing God’s grace. A gift, not a reward. Something we can’t earn. Blessing without measure.
And when we understand ourselves to be recipients of providential giving, we can be free of the fear that whispers “there isn’t enough!” We can stop the ultimately life-denying game of comparison, in which we only feel alive if we’re “ahead.” We can enjoy what we have received without denying those gifts to others. We can appreciate the varying contributions of different people without defensiveness. God’s grace is what makes our life together possible. We can’t simply choose to be with the people who are most like us. We can’t sustain unity with high ideals. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of our founder. “God has bound us together in one body … long before we entered into common life with others … we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.” [Life Together, p. 28].
I think this perspective will affect the way we think about immigration … about the widening gap between haves and have-nots in our country, about our own congregation’s welcome to outsiders. Life itself isn’t fair. Storms and earthquakes and genetic disorders and even the economic system into which we were born are part of the vulnerability of being human. The world is a long way from the Kingdom of God, where everyone receives equal blessing. But I wonder if every step we make towards righting life’s unfairness moves us a little closer to heaven.
But that sounds so … indiscriminate! If everyone gets rewarded at the end of the day, what’s the motivation for working all day long? Does grace undermine the whole idea of being good, of following Jesus, for living God’s way? Why bear the burden of a daily Christian walk if you don’t get any more credit for it than someone who makes a death-bed confession?
Because you know your need of God’s grace, and have discovered that while it isn’t the only way to live, it’s the best way. Because you know we’re all in this together.
Jesus began to teach in parables: the kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity. The older brother responded to the call and went off to a distant land to spend himself in the service of the poor. He was imprisoned for his work, tortured and put to death. And the Lord said, “Well done, my good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of blessing. Enter into the joy of my kingdom.” The younger brother responded to the call. He prospered in his business. He was a good husband and father and was active in his church. And when in advanced years he died, the Lord said, “Well done, my good and faithful servant! You me twenty measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of blessing. Enter into the joy of my kingdom.” It is said that when the older boy was told that his brother would receive the same reward, he was surprised. And he rejoiced. “Lord,” he said, “had I known this at the time you called me … I would have done exactly what I did for love of you.” [The Song of the Bird, by Anthony de Mello, pp. 134, 135]
Friends, how can we begrudge God’s generosity? How can we compete for what is there in abundance? How can we lose when God is “for” us — for all of us?
It’s just not fair! It’s something even better: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.
In the silence that follows, I invite us to consider the ways God’s grace has made a difference … in our vision, in the life we lead, in our treatment of others, in our hope for the future … until we rise to sing a hymn in praise to God for the love that finds us all.